Monday, August 11, 2008

TABLE MANNERS

“Eating out” is one of the joys of vacationing, and I certainly enjoyed sampling meals at different restaurants during my recent visit to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN. One damper on such enjoyment was the fact that I’m allergic to seafood, beginning in my late 40’s, and I felt pangs of regret when my traveling companions heaped boiled shrimp on their plates and “fell to eating,” deftly peeling them like any good Cajun dining at a restaurant in south Louisiana.

Before I developed allergies to shrimp, crabs, and oysters, I could be found dining on boiled crabs almost weekly when they were in season, cracking them open like a seasoned Cajun indulging in this table sport. The atmosphere in some of these seafood restaurants was relaxed, with tables covered by newspaper and hands used in place of cutlery. Children particularly liked the finger food aspect of dining in this atmosphere. In the midst of being up to our ears in crabs and crayfish, a relative sent me a copy of TIFFANY’S TABLE MANNERS. After reading it, I decided that the book would have been more useful in one of my past lives when we lived in Iran --in Cajun country, such a book was an affront to good eating.

When we stayed at a guest house in Masjed-I-Suleiman, Iran, where the dining room had been controlled by British colonialists since the early 1900’s, the three forks, two knives, tablespoon, teaspoon arrangement seemed fairly natural, but crawfish, shrimp, and crab don’t require all that overlay of silver. According to the Tiffany book you don’t have to wait for your hostess to start when you’re dining with continental groups. But, the guidebook advises, “Don’t leap at your food like an Irish wolfhound!” (Or a French poodle or an American Heinz 51 either, for that matter).

The first time we ate at the Masjed-I-Suleiman guest house, my daughters were enchanted with the courses – the soup course, the fish course, the meat and vegetable course, then dessert – it was like unwrapping a surprise package of food. But after juggling knives and forks, they concluded “Don’t they have a MacDonald’s somewhere in these hills?”

The course that particularly bothered my offspring was the vegetable-accompanying-meat course. Britishers at a church camp they had attended in Tehran told them that they weren’t supposed to eat vegetables with the right hand, which meant we had to learn to roll peas on the fork with the left hand. Try that some time. It’ll make a finger food eater out of you even before you get to the table in a Cajun restaurant. “Never keep the fork in the left hand while drinking water,” Tiffany advises. However, if you’re eating crab a la Cajun, you’d better have drinking water in one hand or the other to “correct the seasoning.”

Although Tiffany’s book was published in 1961, it still advocates the use of finger bowls. If you don’t know how to use one (and what’s wrong with the community lavatory in Cajun restaurants?) you’re supposed to dip your fingertips in the bowl – only the fingertips…and evidently no one had been peeling boiled crawfish or crab. “But don’t forget, it’s not a bath tub, you’re not supposed to sink your whole arm,” Tiffany concludes.

Some more Tiffany don’ts? Don’t eat chicken with your hands except at a picnic. With a little practice, you’re supposed to be skillful enough to dislodge sufficient food to fill you until the next meal (but why accept an invite to the dinner if you know you’re going to have to practice chicken-picking?). To conclude this treatise on table manners from Tiffany’s, this is a real no-no: “If you spill water on your partner’s dress, offer her your napkin and say you’re sorry, but don’t start mopping her. It might be misunderstood!” Well, there you are – examples of Tiffany style dining. And if I could still eat seafood, I’d take another order of crabs, sans finger bowl, please!
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